Musicians are Permanent and Precarious Gig Workers

Grenoble  We have spent a lot of time trying to figure out if there are effective ways to organize informal and precarious workers. This was a front line topic for our organizers from around the world when we gathered in Paris recently. A pilot is making progress with hotel housekeepers and cleaners in Lyon, France. In the UK, our ACORN tenants’ union is increasingly getting questions about whether we can be their union on the job as well. Certainly in the United States this is part of our daily work, and we are soon launching a project in New Orleans among itinerant and precarious hospitality workers. Certainly we have experience in this area in organizing home-based workers in childcare and home health, as well as street vendors and waste pickers in India and elsewhere.

The constant publicity and attention given to the gig economy and its economic challenges questions whether or not there is any consensus that such an economy can produce wage security. A unique plan under discussion by ACORN’s New Orleans affiliate revolves around whether or not people can save their homes and livelihoods by adding additional, affordable housing units on their existing home lots in a different kind of in-fill development. Others are even trying AirBnb, if they can master the confusing local regulations. Uber, under pressure, seems to be adding a way for drivers to collect tips and calculating refunds where it scammed drivers on taxes.

I’m skeptical both philosophically and practically. At home or on the road, email is still everywhere, and as the manager of both radio stations like KABF and WAMF and performance venues like Fair Grinds Coffeehouses, I am constantly, and creatively, being solicited by aspiring musicians to play their music or allow them space on the calendar, despite the fact that the stations are noncommercial and playing the coffeehouse means busking for tips. I’m sympathetic to both their dreams and ambitions, as well as their plight, which sometimes includes where they can get cheap housing or free food, even though, as nonprofits and social enterprises, we are too strapped to be helpful without robbing Peter to pay Paul ourselves,.

All of which pushed me to read How Music Works by former frontman of Talking Heads and longtime musician and artist, David Byrne. This is a love letter to music and a Cook’s tour of his career, but the book is also an invaluable primer on the business of music, and there’s no sugar in that coffee. Byrne makes a case for how important “event” spaces and venues are in creating and supporting a music scene. I wish we could provide that, but we fall short on his standards. It is hard for us to supply food and drink to traveling musicians when that means taking food and drink out of the hands of organizers and our members around the world, but I hope he would understand that.

Byrne is clear about his situation. He’s successful and makes a good living, but he certainly didn’t get crazy Rolling Stones rich from his music or other songwriting. When he goes through the various business models on record deals, the old ACORN chant of “predatory lender, criminal offender” was ringing through my ears. On my blog we try to feature a song sent to KABF from time to time to help out the artist. Recently, I got a note from one of the musicians about whether I could link to streaming or something too complicated for me to follow so that maybe he could pick up some iTunes purchases. In a similar way, a friend recently posted on Facebook how she pledges to radio stations to fight the notion that good music and entertainment can be provided for free.

If musicians are a good example of the gig economy, then the verdict is already in, and if music does NOT pay, even when musicians are doing the work, and their work is generally valued and respected more than other precarious workers like cab drivers, cleaners, and hospitality workers, then we’re simply watching the creation of a permanent underclass, not a tech-miracle. Spin that record differently the next time you hear it.


The Expropriation of Community Organizing Techniques by the Gig Economy

Philadelphia  Every once in a while I run into something scary, not because it has to do with nuclear meltdowns or corrupt mortgage brokers or community-and-family killing slumlords, all of which are real things. I am also seriously concerned when there is an expropriation of the good for purposes of the evil. These are times when we are drowning in such amazing doublespeak that we are pinching ourselves in order to snap out of “1984” moments becoming our reality.

This is now common currency in politics. Terrible health care is now touted as great. Proposing to eviscerate social programs to provide the rich with a tax break is now packaged as a jobs program for working families. Turning the dial back to the 1950s on women, the environment, race, and a hundred other things is whitewashed as patriotism. It goes on and on.

It happens even in community organizing, most dramatically as Saul Alinsky and his Rules for Radicals became repurposed by the right as a model for their vicious tactics. Recently, reading a New Yorker article about the gig economy, it was disturbing to drop down the wormhole and see it happening again in a discussion of the organizing tactics of the ride-sharing service, Lyft, the Avis to the Uber, Hertz.

The author, Nathan Heller, was interviewing Emily Castor, who he described as the company’s “leader in the campaign against regulatory constraint.” She said, “We’re borrowing very heavily from traditional community-organizing models, and looking at the grass roots in each city…Who are the leaders? Who are the people who distinguish themselves as passionate, who want to get more involved? We have a team that includes field organizers who are responsible for different parts of the country.” Well, I don’t know if this is traditional or even community organizing. She is essentially talking about building a base, a customer base, and maybe in an Obama-moment she decided to slap “community organizing” on the hood as she drove around.

But, then she dove deeper into something that is hardly traditional and remains controversial, and threw logs on that fire without any sense that the temperature might be rising. Hired by Lyft as their first “community manager,” whatever doublespeak that might portend, the article goes,

“She found that she could draw on her political training. ‘Collective identity is one of those aspects that, in the theory of social movements, is so important…You’re not just ‘taking rides.’”

Then, Marshall Ganz, former UFW organizer and now Harvard Kennedy School instructor, gets drawn into this with his “story of self, a story of us, a story of now: the collective-identity movement-building method.”

For all of the utility of Ganz’ stories, it is essentially a mobilization model, rather than a community organizing or community building model, which is why it has been so embraced by political campaigns, and now it seems even by businesses that may be about the very opposite of community organizing values. Ganz objects to Lyft’s appropriation arguing that markets are all about exchange and finding a common purpose is what politics is about, but even while reading his distinction, it’s way too easy to see why Lyft and its organizers, thought they could just take the tools and run with them their way, since for them finding a “common purpose” is what triggers their market and its financial exchange.